POLITICS

Anonymous Former CBO Head Slags $15 Minimum Wage As A Job Killer

Probably forgot that there aren't that many "former CBO directors," though.

Over at The Hill, Mike Lillis has the story on how the proposed $15 minimum wage is dividing Democrats, in a piece auspiciously titled, "$15 minimum wage divides Democrats." The article describes how the hike to $15 is being pushed hard by Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), even as many prominent party leaders, fearful of the warnings from some economists that such an increase would have an adverse effect on unemployment, are pushing for a more modest boost. Hence, the division.

One of those voices, stoking those fears of unemployment, is presented in the piece like so:

A former CBO director said this week that a hike to $15 per hour would eliminate “many more jobs … because it would cut much further into the distribution of wages.”

 “The effect is not linear, it rises much faster,” said the ex-CBO chief, who requested anonymity.

Wait a minute. A former Congressional Budget Office director requested anonymity? That's all well and good, but the problem is that there are only 13 humans on the planet who can lay claim to the title of "former CBO director." Which means we get to play, "Who is this anonymous human: the fun process-of-elimination game," and find out which former CBO director maybe forgot to request to be referred as an "anonymous former government economist" instead.

It's very possible that Lillis even wants someone to try their hand at this, so why not?

We'll start by making a couple of generous, speculative assumptions. First, we're going to assume that Lillis would not attempt to pass off a former "acting" director of the CBO off as a "former CBO director." While this does sort of seem like something some media organizations might do, it would be a little inaccurate and a slight disservice to readers. Proper CBO directors are appointed by the speaker of the House and the president pro-tempore of the Senate, in consultation with the House and Senate budget committees, so there's just more meaning to the title when its earned by appointment.

We'll also basically assume that the two former CBO directors who are quoted on the record in the piece (Douglas Holtz-Eakin and Alice Rivlin) are not the former CBO director who has been granted anonymity. Though this happens sometimes! Often enough, in fact, that I considered it as a possibility. But here's Holtz-Eakin:

Conducted by Douglas Holtz-Eakin, who headed the CBO from 2003 to 2005, the report found that a wage hike to $15 would transfer an additional $105 billion to low-wage workers, but less than 7 percent of the money would benefit those living in poverty. Meanwhile, 6.6 million jobs would be eliminated.

 “The CBO said this was a misdemeanor,” Holtz-Eakin said Monday by phone, referring to the CBO’s 2014 report. “Why would you commit a felony? It’s just not a good idea.”

And here's Rivlin:

Alice Rivlin, the CBO’s founding director, suggested the cautious approach from Democratic leaders is well advised.

 “I think $15 is too big a jump,” she said, though emphasizing her “excitement” with the move toward a $15 wage in certain high-income localities such as New York, Seattle and Portland. Those experiments, she said, will give Congress a better idea how to move on the federal level, and that, along with a hike in the earned income tax credit, would help improve the post-recession economy.

Sanders, Rivlin added, is “doing a service being out there” promoting the $15 wage hike, which might make a smaller wage hike easier to accomplish.

It would be weird for Rivlin to be cheering the politics of the $15 minimum wage hike in one breath, while characterizing it anonymously as a job-killer in the next. That sort of disassociation would be too much for most reporters to just allow to pass without interceding -- it's essentially allowing a source to lie to one's readers.

As far as Holtz-Eakin goes, usually what happens in the "on-the-record one minute, off-the-record the next" game is the source says something temperate while on the record, and drops bombs under cover of anonymity. In this case, Holtz-Eakin's quoted criticism of the wage hike is stronger than the anonymous criticism, so there'd be no real point to for Holtz-Eakin to play that game.

Like I said, these are some generous assumptions, but let's eliminate Holtz-Eakin and Rivlin. Let's also eliminate Douglas Elmendorf and June O'Neill, because both are already on the record in supporting the notion that raising the minimum wage adversely affects employment. O'Neill said as much on a 2006 broadcast of "PBS Newshour," and Elmendorf was the focus of a grueling political fight after his CBO's analysis of a $10.10 hike in the minimum wage would "lead to a decrease in total employment." Neither have any real reason to be coy about their position now.

If all of this speculation is correct, that leaves us with four possible contenders for the anonymous "former CBO director": Dan Crippen, Peter Orszag, Rudolph Penner, and Robert Reischauer. And here's where we have to start considering why someone would choose to be cited anonymously in this piece, for making what could be considered in the context of this debate to be a fairly innocuous evocation of a fairly standard position among some economists. And the general reason you'd be off the record in this situation basically boils down to, "It would be something of a controversy/embarrassment if my name were attributed to this statement."

Penner and Reischauer both have worked for the Urban Institute (Reischauer was its president for 12 years), a think tank that has fostered a lively and accepting debate on the minimum wage. It's fairly unlikely that either man, having ascended to the Kennelly–Heaviside layer of obscure wonks at this stage of their careers, would be reticent to put their name to their opinions. Who's going to be offended or embarrassed?

It's possible that Crippen, who is the current executive director of the National Governors Association, would want to be anonymous on this matter, if only to keep his personal opinion from being attributed to the association. But it's worth pointing out that Crippen has, in the past, been only too happy to cut against orthodox opinion -- he's a Reagan appointee who's alienated supply-siders by taking a dim view of dynamic scoring.

That's why my money is on Orszag, the Citigroup chairman and Bloomberg columnist from the plutocrat wing of the Democratic party, who probably subscribes to the idea that a $15 minimum wage increase would be bad, but who'd rather not have his name attached to headlines that might inject something screwball into the contest to determine his former boss' successor.

Also, it's just more likely that Lillis, having covered so many stories that intersect with Orszag's policy career -- like Obamacare implementation! -- would have Orszag's phone number at the ready, as opposed to a bunch of obscure bureaucrats from the '80s and '90s.

But, as this is purely a game of speculation, I'm prepared to be wrong about all of this! The one guy who is officially off the hook in this regard is former acting CBO head Edward Gramlich, who died in 2007. Of course, if this quote was from Gramlich, what a buried lede: The Hill opens up metaphysical communication with the afterlife. (Wow, of all the questions to ask Gramlich, too!)

UPDATE: 7:55 p.m. -- And Peter Orszag says I lose all my money!

 
 
I was feeling pretty good about that one, alas. Okay then, my next guess is Dan Crippen. We'll get through all the remaining plausible possibilities in fairly short order, I imagine.
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